TOKYO Sept. 9 saw North Korea conduct its fifth nuclear test at an underground site in the country’s northeast. Pyongyang also repeated the ballistic missile launches that followed their fourth nuclear test earlier this year, boasting of an improvement in the performance of both. In response, the U.S. and South Korea have staged large-scale joint military exercises. One member of the international coalition against the Kim regime, however, remains distinctly underprepared.
The latest nuclear test produced an estimated yield of 10 kilotons, the largest ever recorded by the country and not far away from the approximate 15 kilotons dropped on Hiroshima. The North’s Korean Central Television reported on Sept. 9 that the country had “successfully conducted an explosion test to measure the power of a nuclear warhead.” Kinichi Nishimura, a military analyst and former expert on the North Korean military at Japan’s Defense Ministry, was cautious about assessing the achievement: “We don’t have a lot of information, so it is difficult to judge. But I’m still not so sure that the North has perfected a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on a missile.”
Regardless, with performance advancing, preparing for the worst-case scenario is a must for Japan’s national security.
In early September, the North fired three medium-range missiles — improved versions of Rodong, that landed in the same area of the Sea of Japan. The North Korean military has called the units responsible for the firing “the U.S. military base destruction force,” a clear reference to U.S. bases in Japan and South Korea.
If an emergency were to play out on the Korean Peninsula, the U.S. Air Force’s F-16 fighter unit deployed at Misawa Air Base in Japan’s northern prefecture of Aomori would be the first line of defense — tasked with striking Pyongyang’s core facilities and the short- to medium-range missile units. The flight routes of the Rodong missiles the North has launched this year would not need to be extended by much to reach Aomori.
It is imperative for Japan to put in place contingency measures for a nuclear attack on U.S. bases and minimize the damage to surrounding areas. But the country needs to drastically change its current approach of relying almost entirely on its missile defense system and adopt a multilayered strategy.
The capabilities of the interceptor missiles that make up the defense system have been increased of late. However, North Korea has diversified the nature of its missile tests in recent years to include launches from mobile facilities in a bid to carry them out by surprise. It also wants to project the ability to launch several simultaneously to make interception harder, and uses a lofted trajectory in order to execute a faster impact.
Japan finds itself in a similar position to France shortly before the outbreak of World War II. The French had built the Maginot Line defense perimeter by fortifying stations along the Franco-German border in an effort to hold back an invasion, but were powerless to resist armored divisions bursting through forests in the Ardennes, the plan’s Achilles’ heel.
Only in a genuine emergency will it become clear whether Japan’s missile defense system — which the country is building at huge costs and to the detriment of modernizing other defenses — is any stronger than the Maginot Line. More worrying, however, is the absence of a “plan B.”
For Japan to fail, as the French did, to put in place an adequate rear guard would be tempting fate.
There are four potential deterrent and contingency measures: a retaliatory nuclear force; a preemptive strike on an enemy missile base; an MD unit; and secure evacuation facilities to protect citizens in the event the first three fail. At present, Japan relies entirely on the U.S. military for the first, and heavily on the U.S. and South Korea for the second. As for the third, the SDF has an MD unit but the division is worryingly small. Japan has little or no preparation for the fourth.
Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium enjoy a nuclear sharing arrangement with the U.S., under which they can shore up their nuclear deterrents by mounting U.S. nuclear weapons on their own air force planes. Such an agreement could also be an option worth exploring for Japan.
The Japanese government takes the position that an attack on an enemy missile base can be implemented only under exceptional circumstances. By the end of fiscal 2016, the Japan Air Self-Defense Force is to acquire F-35A stealth fighters, which are perfectly designed for the task. In a theoretical emergency involving North Korea, the U.S. military could call on the SDF to join the counterattack. In this light, the enhancement of the SDF’s capability to strike a missile base, including an upgrade and increase in the number of refueling aircraft, is becoming an issue Tokyo can no longer afford to ignore.
In response to Pyongyang’s frequent surprise exercises, the Japanese government constantly deploys its missile defense unit. In order for this to be sustained over a long period, Japan needs to reinforce the unit both in terms of personnel and the number of interceptor missiles stockpiled.
Another matter of urgency is to build underground shelters in towns and cities hosting U.S. and SDF bases, which the U.S. military would share in an emergency, as well as in densely populated urban centers.
What counts is to implement the four measures concurrently in a multilayered approach. Neglecting to do this would not just endanger the lives of people in the country, but would also mean leaving a weak point in the global coalition against the Kim regime.
Taken from a much more long-term perspective, an enhancement of Japan’s defenses could even out increased regional military capabilities. While the imminent priority is to contain Pyongyang, China’s nuclear potential continues to expand, to which Japan could act as a counterbalance.